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Updating Technology

March 1, 2009
Wishful thinking or reality?
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Wishful thinking or reality?

by Dianne Glasscoe-Watterson, RDH, BS, MBA

There are many new technological advances in dentistry, but how does the practicing hygienist acquire these wonderful new tools? Whose responsibility is it?

It's happened to all of us. You're at a large dental meeting, browsing the vendors in the exhibit hall. There are so many vendors that you don't know where to begin, so you pick a row at random. As you're walking along, you see a shiny new power scaler. You recall that during the past year, your scaler has been returned to the manufacturer twice, yet it still leaks water and is a pain to use. This new scaler has lots of bells and whistles, plus a line of ultrathin tips. As you pick it up, you can just imagine the ease with which you could debride those deep pockets. The rep lets you “test drive” the scaler on a mannequin, and you are sold! Using this scaler feels like power scaling heaven!

Now comes the hard part — the price. How do you convince the doctor that he or she needs to spend X amount of money on a piece of equipment for the hygiene department? This scenario is repeated in dental meetings across the country. It could be new instruments, a new operator chair, magnification, prophy paste, handpiece, intrapocket therapy, operator light, or headlight.

Every practice owner should have some money earmarked in the budget for equipment/technology updates, which includes the hygiene department. Then why is it that hygiene operatories often get the doctor's hand–me–down equipment when new equipment is purchased? Is this like Dad buying a new car and giving his son the old clunker? Do we view the doctor as the “parental authority” and the only one capable of making purchasing decisions?

Empowered hygienists

An encouraging trend I see is that more hygienists feel empowered to take control of their professional destinies and purchase some of their own equipment. They see great value in investing in magnification and headlights in order to increase their personal longevity in the profession. Not content to be relegated to the doctor's hand–me–downs, many hygienists purchase their own ergonomic operator chair and power scaler. All such purchases are tax deductible.

Unfortunately, there are probably more hygienists that don't feel empowered to make major purchases for reasons such as strained finances, poor communication with the doctor, and feelings of intimidation. Some hygienists work only part time. Some are content with the “status quo” and have never even entertained the idea of purchasing something to make their job easier. After all, it's the doctor's practice. Hygienists are not “independent contractors.” Isn't it the doctor's responsibility to furnish whatever the hygienist needs to do his or her job?

While the primary responsibility does belong with the practice owner, the hygienist also has the responsibility to practice in a way that does not contribute to career–ending injuries.

Be prepared with solid data

Whether or not the doctor will agree to purchases for the hygiene department often depends on the perceived return on investment (ROI). For example, if a new power scaler will enable the hygienist to deliver care in a more thorough, comfortable manner, and assist the hygienist in working more efficiently, the doctor would probably consider a purchase to have a positive ROI.

I asked several dentists about purchases for the hygiene department. Most doctors feel that loupes should be custom–fitted for the hygienist and are not appropriate for other hygienists. Therefore, the hygienist should contribute to the purchase of loupes, if not pay for the entire thing. One company, Designs for Vision (, allows the clinician to have a 45–day trial at no obligation.

One doctor has three wish lists: one for items under $100, such as a new coffee maker for the staff lounge or new bean bag chairs for patients; one for items in the $100 to $1,000 range, such as new flat screen monitors, hand scalers, or a steam towel machine; and one for large ticket items such as power scalers, loupes, and chairs.

Another doctor had the innovative idea that the hygienist could purchase equipment, such as a power scaler, and lease it back to the office. It would be a source of passive income for the hygienist and would save on taxes, as no FICA is paid on rental income.

All the doctors I talked to said that purchases often depend on their relationship with the hygienist. One doctor said, “I think a lot depends on your relationship with your hygienist. A new one coming into the office and asking for a new chair, loupes, or Cadillac scaler will be told ‘no way,' whereas a long–term hygienist will usually be told ‘sure'.”
How serious are you about your professional longevity? It's time to step up and take stock of your efforts to protect yourself, and consider purchases that will improve your ability as a clinician. Make a wish list. Start with magnification and a headlight, and then move on to other options such as an ergonomic operator stool, lightweight or untethered handpiece, and new power scaler or inserts. Moving forward will make a tremendous difference in your ability and comfort at work, and move you OUT of the Dark Ages!

Tips for Requesting Purchases

  • Choose a good time to talk with the doctor when he or she is not rushed.
  • Be prepared to discuss why a requested item is needed.
  • Provide solid data such as price, set–up, and training.
  • Don't expect an immediate answer. Give the doctor time to consider a request.